The Wings Tour 2014: Leg One

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What is the connection between motorcycles and airplanes? Growing up with a father who was fascinated by both, my youth was spent scouring the countryside for dusty barn finds, spinning a greasy wrench and flying, in the air and on the ground, wind in my face. It seemed that most of my dad’s friends were pilots and motorcycle riders too. Apparently lots of famous aviators are motorcyclists and vice versa. Charles Lindbergh rode an Excelsior Super X. Steve McQueen collected and flew airplanes (his favorite was a Boeing Stearman), along with his better known motorcycle obsession. Former racers Mat Mladin and Bob “Hurricane” Hannah are flying buddies. It’s no coincidence that the world’s top selling motorcycle company, Honda, uses a wing as its logo. Wings are also featured on the emblem of Moto Guzzi, a company formed by two Italian World War I fighter pilots. The Italians call a person mounted on a motorcycle the “pilota,” a pilot, who is a skilled operator in complete control of his craft. A rider is the guy who takes the bus.

So what’s the appeal that links two wheels and wings? Maybe it’s the three-dimensional freedom of motion that both allow? The ability to bank, turn and defy gravity? The romance of that perfect cocktail of speed, danger and adventure? This needed to be investigated further.

Sixties-vintage USAF-issue Flight Goggle 58 by American Optical. Sunglasses that were actually designed to fit inside a helmet.

Sixties-vintage USAF-issue Flight Goggle 58 by American Optical. Sunglasses that were actually designed to fit inside a helmet.

And so was born “The Wings Tour 2014.” The plan was to ride down the East Coast hitting as many aviation sites as we could manage, experiencing the best that two wheels and wings had to offer. Contemplating the motorcycle to take there was only one choice. What better ride to take a trip through aviation history than Honda’s Gold Wing? From its high-tech design to its complicated cockpit to its horizontally opposed engine, a Gold Wing just might be as close as you can come to flying while keeping the tires solidly connected to the tarmac. So I grabbed my granddad’s Air Force issue Flight Goggle 58 sunglasses and off we went.

Day 1

Our journey began in the nation’s capital. From the home of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base to the former site of the Martin factory just outside of Baltimore to the world’s oldest airport in continuous operation in College Park, Maryland the Washington D.C. area is steeped in aviation history. It is also home to one of the greatest aircraft museums and the largest collection of historic aviation in the world, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum.

Our "Wings Tour 2014" started out at Honda Powersports of Rockville, Maryland, where we picked up a 2014 GL1800 Gold Wing in Tour appropriate "stealth black."

Our “Wings Tour 2014″ started out at Honda Powersports of Rockville, Maryland, where we picked up a 2014 GL1800 Gold Wing in Tour-appropriate “stealth black.”

Just outside the D.C. city limits we picked up a 2014 Honda Gold Wing in Wings Tour appropriate stealth black (my designation, not Honda’s) at Honda Powersports of Rockville. As a kid my pilot father’s day job was as the sales manager of the local Honda dealership. Somehow a Gold Wing seemed to follow him home every weekend. My formative riding experiences were on the big machines. He didn’t plunk me down on that plush back seat. He stuck me on the tank in front of him, my five-year-old feet resting on the engine guards of those big flat cylinders, my hands reaching forward to grasp the bars. I wasn’t a passenger. I was a pilot.

No map. No directions. I was feeling all Easy Rider until I punched the Smithsonian’s coordinates into the Honda’s GPS. Along with myself and my co-pilot, we were taking along a navigator. The digital display took us through D.C.’s maze of angularly bisecting streets and traffic circles, dodging mini-vans with diplomatic plates and Segway tourists. We blistered in the sun at the stoplights, as the July afternoon heat index climbed to 100. The museum’s boxy shape was a welcome sight as we approached the National Mall, not only as the first stop on the Wings Tour, but also for its air conditioning inside.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the world's largest collection of historic aircraft, a welcome sight as the first stop on the Wings Tour and for the air conditioning inside.

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft, was a welcome sight as the first stop on the Wings Tour and for the air conditioning inside.

The Air and Space Museum was the perfect start to our aviation adventure. Its exhibits trace the trajectory of manned flight, from drawings of flying machines by Leonardo Da Vinci to the technology of the Mars Rover. In between are priceless pieces of aviation history – Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Flyer, Yeager’s Bell X-1.

A few feet inside the door, we saw our first motorcycle. Its frame held an all-American V engine. Not a Twin but a V-8. Glenn Curtiss got his start building motorcycles. When pioneering aviators came to him seeking his light and powerful engines he started building powerplants for airplanes.

Glenn Curtiss' 1906 V-8 motorcycle. 269 ci. 40 hp @ 1,800 rpm. It set an unofficial world record of 136 mph in 1907, unofficial because the drive shaft broke and the motorcycle couldn't make another pass. This machine made Curtiss "the fastest man in the world" until 1911.

Glenn Curtiss’ 1906 V-8 motorcycle. 269 ci. 40 hp @ 1,800 rpm. It set an unofficial world record of 136 mph in 1907, unofficial because the drive shaft broke and the motorcycle couldn’t make another pass. This machine made Curtiss “the fastest man in the world” until 1911.

The motorcycle in the Air and Space collection was Curtiss’ test bed for his new V-8. In a 1907 test he set an unofficial speed record of 136 miles per hour on tires so narrow they’d make a Tour de France rider wince. The motorcycle record stood for two-and-a-half decades (it was the fastest that any machine traveled until a car broke the record in 1911). Curtiss went on to rack up a long list of aviation firsts, becoming the bedeviling competition of the Wright brothers, and in the process, earned himself a place in both the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the National Aviation Hall of Fame. Part of the company he founded still lives on today in the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

Since the earliest days of the internal combustion engine motorcycles and airplanes have been inextricably linked. When the Wright Brothers made the world’s first airplane flight in 1903,  two men with the last names Harley and Davidson decided that bicycles needed to have an engine between their two wheels (Orville and Wilbur had started out building bicycles too). Both motorcycles and airplanes seemed to appeal to the same kind of person – part adventurer, part daredevil, with plenty of mechanical aptitude thrown in for when the machines, invariably, broke down. Both operators wore the same uniform – boots, leather jacket, silk scarf, goggles and leather helmet. Both were often killed or maimed for their passion.

A Wright Brothers-manufactured bicycle sits beside the original Wright Flyer.

A Wright Brothers-manufactured bicycle sits beside the original Wright Flyer.

By World War I, both airplanes and motorcycles were just hitting their stride. It was as common to see an Indian, a NSU or a Triumph at an airbase as it was a Sopwith, a Fokker or a SPAD. The Golden Age of Flight that occurred between the wars produced such beautiful and iconic aircraft as the Gee Bee racer and the Lockheed Vega. At the same time motorcycles were in their own golden age, with designs like the Indian Four, the Brough Superior SS100 and the BMW R32 (a manufacturer of aircraft engines, BMW was forced to diversify after the prohibitions of the Versailles Treaty).

While the museum’s collection overwhelmed us inside, outside the July heat boiled over into a thunderstorm. Wind and hail. Pounding rain. We pushed out like a pair of air mail pilots braving the elements in an open-cockpit biplane. The weather snarled the notoriously horrible D.C. traffic. Standing water and bumper-to-bumper cars. In the miserable conditions the Gold Wing’s ABS brakes hauled us down like the tail hook on an aircraft carrier.

After more than a century, flying and riding gear still look essentially the same.

After more than a century, flying and riding gear still look essentially the same.

The delays kept piling up in the July 4 Eve traffic so we called it a day, making an emergency landing at our hotel just short of our final D.C. destination.

Day 2

Our thwarted stop from the first day had been the Steve F. Udvar-Hazy Center. A sister to the downtown D.C. Air and Space, the Udvar-Hazy is where they keep the big stuff. Unhampered by the confines of the National Mall, the museum sprawls on the outskirts of Dulles International Airport. Accessing the Udvar-Hazy is the antithesis of the downtown Air and Space. Located a few miles from the interstate with an ample parking lot and lockers inside big enough to stow all your gear, it’s a perfect motorcycle stop.

The airplane which was on the mind of the Honda engineers when they penned the all black 2014 Gold Wing, the SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest jet aircraft. Titanium construction. Mach 3.3 speeds. What's not to like?

The SR-71 Blackbird might’ve been on the mind of the Honda engineers when they penned the all-black 2014 Gold Wing. Titanium construction. Mach 3.3 speeds. What’s not to like?

Inside, the Udvar-Hazy has its own share of famous aircraft, from the Concorde to an SR-71 Blackbird and the Space Shuttle Discovery, along with the only surviving examples of numerous rare planes. Displays highlight aircraft technology including a gallery of engines, their pistons, camshafts and valves looking very familiar to a gearhead.

Soaking in this timeline of aircraft development I couldn’t help but think of our motorcycle outside. Introduced in 1975 as the ultimate in two wheels, over the years the Wing had adapted and changed in response to stiff competition in its heavy touring market niche, the motorcycling equivalent of long range strategic bombers. While the others had come and gone, the Wing is still going strong at nearly four decades. The B-52 of the motorcycle world, the GL1800 is the fifth itineration of the series.

From the top of the museum’s 164-foot observation tower, the mountains of Virginia beckoned. So far on the Wings Tour we’d spent more feet time than seat time. That was about to change. Fifty miles from Dulles airport lay the entrance to Shenandoah National Park. The park’s only major road, the Skyline Drive, follows the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles of two-lane blacktop bliss, offering alternating views of Virginia’s Piedmont and the Shenandoah Valley. With long days of straight, flat interstate ahead we couldn’t pass it up.

The Shenandoah National Park is the closest national park to the D.C. metro area and home to the Skyline Drive a 105-mile, two lane paved road that threads along the ridge top of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Shenandoah National Park is the closest national park to the D.C. metro area and home to the Skyline Drive, a 105-mile, two lane paved road that threads along the ridge top of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Some people celebrate freedom with fireworks and hotdogs, but I’ve always found the best way to spend the Fourth was on a motorcycle. There is no finer expression of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. And there’s no better place to escape the July heat than on top of a mountain. The air temperature dropped 25 degrees as we made the 2,500 foot climb to the ridgeline.

Riding a motorcycle on Skyline Drive is the equivalent to flying a high-wing, tail dragger. “Low and slow” my dad used to call it. The 35 mile-per-hour speed limit is enforced more by traffic than park rangers. With the surrounding countryside lying a thousand feet below, the overlooks afford a bird’s eye view of a patchwork of farm fields, roads and meandering rivers, the same view you’d get buzzing overhead in a small plane. The Gold Wing handled as light and comfortable as a J-3 Cub at the parade pace, its six-cylinder Boxer purring like a Continental A50. The engine’s broad torque curve let us lug it down as we slowed and then add some gas to speed back up, ignoring the transmission.

Over 1,000 feet above the Shenandoah Valley below, overlooks on the Skyline Drive afford a birds-eye view similar to what one would get from an airplane.

More than 1,000 feet above the Shenandoah Valley below, overlooks on the Skyline Drive afford a birds-eye view similar to what one would get from an airplane.

Flight Log: Leg One
Total Riding Time: 9 hours
Total Miles, Leg One: 331
Average Speed, Leg One: 37 mph
Total Trip Miles to Date: 331
Average Fuel Consumption (mix of urban and interstate riding): 30 mpg
Average Fuel Consumption (mix of Skyline Drive and interstate riding): 38 mpg

By the time we reached the southern portion of Skyline Drive, the metro tourist traffic disappeared and we often had the road all to ourselves. I cracked the throttle open and pushed the Gold Wing’s pace, diving later into the curves and getting the most out of our ground clearance. The Wing’s solid handling continued as the tempo increased, its linked brakes trailing-off the extra speed from turns entered too hot.

As the sun sets prematurely on a summer holiday, so the ride along Skyline Drive ended too soon. At the end, a sign denotes the start of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Like a dog looking at a cat while its master yells for it to get back on the porch I looked south, then east, then south again. Focus. Focus. Before I knew it the Wing had turned itself east and we were off in search of more aviation adventures.

The ride continues in Wings Tour: Leg Two 

 

Tourists gather on the National Mall near the Capitol Building and the National Air and Space Museum.

Tourists gather on the National Mall near the Capitol Building and the National Air and Space Museum.

Traffic, roundabouts and Segway tourists. Negotiating D.C. traffic is half of the adventure.

Traffic, roundabouts and Segway tourists. Negotiating D.C. traffic is half of the adventure.

The best way to get around the National Mall ... if you're not the guy that has to push the pedals.

The best way to get around the National Mall … if you’re not the guy that has to push the pedals.

The Air and Space Museum's "Milestones of Flight" gallery is a perfect overview of aviation history, featuring such historic planes as The Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1.

The Air and Space Museum’s “Milestones of Flight” gallery is a perfect overview of aviation history, featuring such historic planes as The Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1.

The Air and Space Museum's World War II Aviation gallery features such classic piston-driven fighters as the Spitfire, the P-51D and the Macchi Folgore.

The Air and Space Museum’s World War II Aviation gallery features such classic piston-driven fighters as the Spitfire, the P-51D and the Macchi Folgore.

Look familiar? Early motorcycles and airplanes shared the same engine configurations, including horizontal opposed, vee and inline.

Look familiar? Early motorcycles and airplanes shared the same engine configurations, including horizontal opposed, vee and inline.

Like Harley-Davidson the Wright Brothers got their start by making bicycles.

Like Harley-Davidson the Wright Brothers got their start by making bicycles.

Early aviators and motorcyclists wore the same uniform; silk scarf, goggles and leather helmet.

Early aviators and motorcyclists wore the same uniform; silk scarf, goggles and leather helmet.

Overhead cams in 1914? The Hispano-Suiza 8A (E) liquid cooled V-8. The engine powered many World War I Allied fighters, like the SPAD XIII shown in the background.

Overhead cams in 1914? The Hispano-Suiza 8A (E) liquid cooled V-8. The engine powered many World War I Allied fighters, like the SPAD XIII shown in the background.

One of the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall the National Air and Space Museum hosted seven million visitors in 2013.

One of the most popular of the Smithsonian Museums on the National Mall the National Air and Space Museum hosted seven million visitors in 2013.

The Air and Space Museum tracks the history of aviation from Da Vinci's drawings of flying machines through modern day space exploration.

The Air and Space Museum tracks the history of aviation from Da Vinci’s drawings of flying machines through modern day space exploration.

Whoever said "when it rains it pours" must have gotten stuck in a July thunderstorm in Washington D.C.

Whoever said “when it rains it pours” must have gotten stuck in a July thunderstorm in Washington D.C.

Waiting for the hail to stop.

Waiting for the hail to stop.

The 2014 Honda GL1800 Gold Wing painted in special edition parking lot camouflage.

The 2014 Honda GL1800 Gold Wing painted in special edition parking lot camouflage.

Wings, the official food of The Wings Tour 2014.

Wings, the official food of The Wings Tour 2014.

Access to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum is the opposite of the museum's National Mall location, with ample parking and easy access to the interstate.

Access to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum is the opposite of the museum’s National Mall location, with ample parking and easy access to the interstate.

The Udvar-Hazy Center. Where the National Air and Space Museum keeps the big stuff, like the Space Shuttle Discovery.

The Udvar-Hazy Center. Where the National Air and Space Museum keeps the big stuff, like the Space Shuttle Discovery.

From the earliest flying machines to space travel the Air and Space Museum showcases the entire spectrum of aerospace history.

From the earliest flying machines to space travel the Air and Space Museum showcases the entire spectrum of aerospace history.

Twin Lewis machine guns, anti-tailgating technology shown on a SPAD XVI , that unfortunately never made it into motorcycle design.

Twin Lewis machine guns, anti-tailgating technology shown on a SPAD XVI , that unfortunately never made it into motorcycle design.

Was this the face that launched a thousand motorcycle paint job and helmet designs? The Curtiss P-40E in American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers colors.

Was this the face that launched a thousand motorcycle paint job and helmet designs? The Curtiss P-40E in American Volunteer Group Flying Tigers colors.

The apex of piston driven aircraft engine technology, the Pratt & Whitney R-4360. 28 cylinders. 3,000 horsepower.

The apex of piston driven aircraft engine technology, the Pratt & Whitney R-4360. 28 cylinders. 3,000 horsepower.

Anything look familiar here? A Curtiss A-2 V-twin engine originally designed for motorcycles and adapted to airplanes and a Bates horizontally opposed Model 2B.

Anything look familiar here? A Curtiss A-2 V-twin engine originally designed for motorcycles and adapted to airplanes and a Bates horizontally opposed Model 2B.

Both early motorcyclists and aviators pushed the boundaries of speed and endurance. This Gage biplane was used by Robert Fowler to fly across Panama from ocean to ocean in 1913.

Both early motorcyclists and aviators pushed the boundaries of speed and endurance. This Gage biplane was used by Robert Fowler to fly across Panama from ocean to ocean in 1913.

Airlines and acrobatic planes pack the halls of the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Airlines and acrobatic planes pack the halls of the Udvar-Hazy Center.

From the top of the Udvar-Hazy Center's 164 foot observation one can see the runways of Dulles International Airport and the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia.

From the top of the Udvar-Hazy Center’s 164 foot observation one can see the runways of Dulles International Airport and the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia.

Experimental, commercial and military aviation on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

Experimental, commercial and military aviation on display at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

With temperatures 20 degrees cooler than the land below a mountain top is the best place to spend a July afternoon in full motorcycle gear.

With temperatures 20 degrees cooler than the land below a mountain top is the best place to spend a July afternoon in full motorcycle gear.

The Gold Wing is the perfect Skyline Drive cruiser with its comfortable seat, light handling and torquey engine.

The Gold Wing is the perfect Skyline Drive cruiser with its comfortable seat, light handling and torquey engine.

The Gold Wing provides a comfortable, power platform for two-up touring on the Skyline Drive.

The Gold Wing provides a comfortable, power platform for two-up touring on the Skyline Drive.

Passing storms made brilliant the usually hazy July skies as seen from the Skyline Drive.

Passing storms made brilliant the usually hazy July skies as seen from the Skyline Drive.

Big Meadows, the halfway point on the Skyline Drive, is the place where President Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1935.

Big Meadows, the halfway point on the Skyline Drive, is the place where President Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1935.

Shenandoah National Park's Skyline Drive is a popular rode for motorcyclists throughout the summer months.

Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive is a popular rode for motorcyclists throughout the summer months.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. Comfortable seating and plenty of power for two-up riding is what has kept the Gold Wing line around for nearly four decades.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. Comfortable seating and plenty of power for two-up riding is what has kept the Gold Wing line around for nearly four decades.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. As the traffic cleared on the southern end of the Skyline Drive we were able to push the Gold Wing and get a feel for its superb handling.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. As the traffic cleared on the southern end of the Skyline Drive we were able to push the Gold Wing and get a feel for its superb handling.

The Skyline Drive, 105 miles of curvy roads, gorgeous views and blue sky.

The Skyline Drive, 105 miles of curvy roads, gorgeous views and blue sky.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. No better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than good company, a solid motorcycle and a winding road.

Photo by Matt Armstrong. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. No better way to celebrate the Fourth of July than good company, a solid motorcycle and a winding road.

Plenty of overlooks on the Skyline Drive give plenty of opportunities to catch great views or to take a break from the road.

Plenty of overlooks on the Skyline Drive give plenty of opportunities to catch great views or to take a break from the road.

At the end of the Skyline Drive we resisted the urge to follow a fellow Winger down the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading east instead to continue our aviation adventure.

At the end of the Skyline Drive we resisted the urge to follow a fellow Winger down the Blue Ridge Parkway, heading east instead to continue our aviation adventure.

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  • Ser Samsquamsh

    Great article thank you. I’ve always wanted to visit the Udvar-Hazy and Smithsonian. No summer vacation for me this year, but this will do for now :)

  • Southerner

    I thoroughly enjoyed both museums as well. Your photos bring back pleasant memories, although I was there in winter and consequently was glad it was a bus tour. That traffic is unreal.

    As both a MC and plane enthusiast myself, both museums are great. I lost count of the legendary planes I saw.

    If I may suggest another destination, consider the Naval Aviation Museum at Pensacola Naval Air Station. Admission is free and the place is chock full of good stuff. Additionally, check their website for days when the Blue Angels are practicing. Visitors can also see that for free. You might want to include that as part of a tour of the Gulf Coast highways.

  • jonbowden

    might need to take the FZ up there

  • Thomas Young

    I’ve always thought the perfect day involved a motorcycle ride to the airport. Loved the article.